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Whitney Knitter shows us her New York City-based electronics workspace, where she tackles FPGA, SDR, and DIY electronics projects.
Having lived in New York and London, I have experienced the frustration that comes with subway delays. That's why the title of Whitney Knitter’s YouTube video, "Tracking the NYC Subway Using FPGAs,” caught my attention. After learning about that project, I visited her Knitronics site and read that she has worked on several interesting FPGA and software-defined radio projects. In this Q&A, she talks about her New York City-based workspace and a few of her projects. She proves that you don't need thousands of square meters of lab space to build and test electronic systems and tools.
Tell us about yourself. What do you do for work?
I currently work as an FPGA Software Defined Radio Engineer, and I also run an electronics tutorial blog called Knitronics, where I post mostly about getting started with FPGAs and current news in the FPGA domain.
I came across your work and your workspace while researching FPGAs on YouTube. Tell us about your space. How would you best describe it? Where is it located?
My current workbench is the perfect blend of functional and NYC apartment friendly. It's compact but efficient with a full soldering station and test equipment setup. I use it for a combination of mostly electronics/FPGA work and some light woodworking for a Halloween-themed project. My home lab bench lives in my one-bedroom apartment between the living area and kitchen. Part of this was strategic such that my coffee machine is always within reach.
What were your main requirements when you set up your workspace?
As I previously mentioned, my main requirements were maximum efficiency fitted into the smallest footprint such that I could support both my professional and blog projects. All of my projects are somewhere in the FPGA or software-defined radio (SDR) domain, so they require test equipment such as a logic analyzer, oscilloscope, waveform generator, and a signal analyzer. Most of the time, I need also to solder custom circuits onto perf board for custom FPGA development breakout boards. So, I searched for test equipment that was compact and skipped built-in screens in favor of GUIs that could run on my PC. I also bought a rolling file cabinet for gear storage and I turned the top of it into a permanent test equipment setup where I can leave a project setup and simply roll the whole thing aside when I need to use the main desk for something else.
Let’s turn to your technical interests. Tell us more about the kinds of projects do you work on in your space.
Throughout college, I always opted for electives in digital logic, analog circuitry, and RF. This carried on into my professional work where I got into FPGAs and SDR design. I started the blog as a way to document things when I finally figured something out I had been stuck on so I would have it for myself to refer to in the future. I think I posted a link on Twitter once and it took off from there.
What sort of equipment and tools do you have on hand?
I have a full soldering station, CRT display signal analyzer, ADP3450 (an all-in-one USB oscilloscope that has oscilloscope, waveform generator, and logic analyzer functionality built in), just about every type of USB cable you can imagine, a stocked parts cabinet of electronics parts (resistors, capacitors, inductors, transistors, breadboard, perf board, servo motors, jumper wires, screw drivers, etc.), and a large stock of various FPGA development boards.
Your most valued tool or piece of equipment?
My most important/valued tool is my 16" MacBook Pro running Ubuntu. Maxed out with 64GB of RAM and graphics, it handles anything I can throw at it with Vivado. I also found a way to run Ubuntu in a VM using Parallels such that it backs up straight to iCloud in real time as each file is edited so I haven't worried about file loss in a long time. I know Mac isn't the most popular choice, but I haven't found anything else that backs up and syncs my files in the same way iCloud does.
It is amazing that you’ve been able to carve out enough space in an NYC apartment. Is there anything special or unique about your space?
The rolling file cabinet I previously mentioned was a game changer. Prior to it, I would have to constantly tear down my projects and set them back up as I needed the desk space for other things (i.e., switching between work projects and blog projects). With the rolling cabinet that has the test equipment fixed to the top means I can leave one project on it while being able to move the file cabinet with test equipment to switch the connection to the other project. Completely clear parts drawers also made life easier when searching through them. The clear drawers I found were originally intended for makeup storage.
Do you have any plans for the workspace?
I'm planning on building some sort of custom shelving on top of the test equipment on the rolling filing cabinet such that multiple projects can live on it at once.
Do you have a favorite electronics-related project? What did you build and why did you build it?
I think my favorite project to date is the custom FPGA-based web server I built for a local coffee shop so they could have a digital menu after the pandemic started. I also added a web camera with image processing such that customers could also see which pastries were still available as their looking at the menu.
Can you tell us about any projects you have in the works?
I am currently working on several projects, including updating my Halloween project from last year (the electromagnetic Ouija board), reviewing new FPGA development boards, and several partnerships with exciting companies like Edge Impulse, Xilinx, and Digilent.
Do you have a dream project?
I would love to lay out my own custom FPGA board with all of my favorite peripherals and Knitronics logo on the silkscreen.
Can you share some advice, tips, or encouragement for other engineers who are thinking of putting together a workspace?
Doing stuff at home is the best way to stay ahead at work. It gives you the free space to figure out things on your own without any pressure. You'll also end up surprising yourself with what you can do when you challenge yourself and you have to have the proper tools to be successful.
Do you enjoy learning about where other engineers and makers work on electronics projects? Take a look at these electronics workspaces.
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As we move on to the next post, may I add that geoFence helps stop hackers from getting access to the sensitive documents that I use for my work. Now I can get even more gigs as a freelancer and - advertise that I have top security with even my home computer!